Welcome to European Tribune. It's gone a bit quiet around here these days, but it's still going.

Defending Ireland

by Frank Schnittger Thu Sep 19th, 2019 at 12:36:35 PM EST

I am not a complete pacifist, but I generally struggle to find problems where brute military force is the solution. At most I am prepared to concede that every country has a right to defend itself, and must make appropriate provision to create forces with the capability to see off likely threats. But more often than not the resort to war has only come about because of a failure of politics and diplomacy at many levels. The best defence is always to ensure that international relationships never deteriorate to that level in the first place.

In the case of a small country like Ireland, developing a capability to deal with likely threats does not include the capability to ward off an invasion by a major power. Not only is in unclear why any major power might want to invade us, but it is certain we would lose such a battle if it where fought on their terms. Our best bet is the maintain good relations with neighbouring powers and rely on economic integration and mutual self-interest to do the rest.

So, in general, I am quite happy with the fact that Ireland has a very small defence force, run on a shoestring budget, which does little more than fisheries protection; air and sea rescue; peacekeeping, crisis management and humanitarian relief operations in support of the United Nations; and providing armed support to a largely unarmed police force when dealing with major violent crime or terrorist threats. Quite apart from anything else, it means there is no macho political culture of violent responses to people or countries with which we might disagree.

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A Democratic Backstop

by Frank Schnittger Thu Sep 19th, 2019 at 10:43:19 AM EST

You know you are in serious trouble when Stormont is being touted as the solution to your problem...

Stormont lock is fig leaf for likely DUP climbdown

An air of absurdity and exhaustion hangs over the idea that Stormont is the solution to Brexit. The northern institutions have collapsed, the British government is collapsing and London's sincerity in seeking a deal remains in question. These are shaky grounds on which to place the contention and complexity of Stormont input into the backstop, or some backstop-like arrangement. A new layer of accountability can be imagined and Northern Ireland is hardly a stranger to arcane government systems. But where would the energy come from to make this work, when only the DUP wants it and most nationalists would see Stormont administering Brexit as adding insult to injury?


It is not as if the DUP's need is fundamental - it merely wants a fig leaf to cover its retreat. When then British prime minister Theresa May unveiled the so-called Stormont lock in January this year, DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds dismissed it as "cosmetic and meaningless".

May's proposals were stronger than anything now likely to be agreed.

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The end of the Tories

by Frank Schnittger Tue Sep 17th, 2019 at 09:57:16 PM EST

The dog that didn't bark

As the UK drifts ever closer to B-day, you would expect there would be a flurry of activity - tense overnight negotiations, crunch summits of key leaders, emotional parliamentary debates and cliff-hanging votes on difficult compromises. The reality is that nothing much is happening, and probably won't be happening for another month or so.

Parliament is prorogued, all the media focus will be on the annual party conference season, no serious detailed technical negotiations on the Withdrawal Agreement are taking place and Boris, having seen Juncker for the first time in his two months of premiership, decided he could afford to alienate the Prime Minister of a small EU member state - Xavier Bettell.

In London the Supreme Court is hearing a challenge to the legality of the lengthy proroguing of Parliament. But what difference will it make, even if it finds in favour of the plaintiffs? Parliament may end up returning earlier, but the key date - October 19th. has now been etched in stone - it is either a deal agreed by Parliament by then, or it's another extension, or at least that is what the law says.

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Rerversing the dominant submissive British Irish polarity

by Frank Schnittger Sun Sep 15th, 2019 at 02:09:41 PM EST

I normally read Fintan O'Toole's articles, but when I saw the title of his latest piece "For the first time since 1171, Ireland is more powerful than Britain," I decided to give it a miss. Fintan going over the top again, I thought. But then in an idle moment I chanced upon the article again and got drawn in. It turns out to be some of Fintan's best work.

In considering his writing we must remember he is as much an art and drama critic as a political analyst, and while his political analysis can be a bit off the deep end - as when he suggested all Sinn Fein MPs should resign and allow themselves to be replaced by nationalist candidates not bound by an abstentionist policy - his colour writing on the subtle shifts and nuances of Anglo-Irish relations is second to none.

And far from the triumphalist Irish nationalist piece of guff I was expecting with a title like that, it is actually a very perceptive piece on how Brexit has changed the whole dynamic of Anglo-Irish relations. Essentially he is arguing that the polarity of the dominant-submissive mode of the post colonial British Irish relationship has been reversed: Partially in terms of Irish government policy and presentation, but more particularly in the mind set of Brexiteers.

Crazy as it may seem, they imagine themselves to be engaged in a post-colonial struggle for liberation against an oppressive evil empire (the EU) and cannot understand how Ireland would not be an automatic and natural ally in that struggle - but instead has taken on the role of cheerleader and chief antagonist for the evil empire.

Thankfully he notes that "There is far too much at stake to take any pleasure in this bizarre political reversal." The last thing we need to do is to replace an obsequious deference to our lords and masters with an obnoxious sense of superiority.

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Reforming the UK Constitution

by Frank Schnittger Fri Sep 13th, 2019 at 10:32:23 AM EST

The Brexit debacle has given rise to a lot of discussion of the UK "Constitution", unwritten as it is, and the need to reform key aspects of it to prevent the abuse of power. It would be helpful if there were a written codified version of it, so at least we could all agree on what it says. Instead we have a tangled web of precedents, conventions, "gentlemen's agreements", case law and statutory instruments giving huge scope for disagreement and uncertainty as to what is, and is not "constitutional".

A convention is only a convention until it isn't, and a precedent only a precedent until it is broken. Different judges come to different conclusions as to what is permissible, and there appear to be huge gaps in statutory law. The US experience has shown that a written Constitution is no guarantee against abuse and wilful misinterpretation - see the second amendment to the US Constitution, where reference to "a well regulated Militia" has not been allowed to restrict individuals to bear arms in their own right.

So while accepting that no constitution is ever perfect, what changes would you like to see to the current UK constitution?

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The penny has dropped

by Frank Schnittger Thu Sep 12th, 2019 at 08:48:25 AM EST

Newton Emerson has been the foremost unionist commentator on political affairs in Ireland over the past few years. In common with almost all unionists he couldn't quite understand why Brexit was an existential threat to the Good Friday Agreement, the peace process and any Irish government, no matter how mild mannered or moderate its chief protagonists. Somehow Brexit was going to be a fact of life and we were all going to have to "just get on with it".

To be clear, Newton, like the 56% in N. Ireland who voted Remain (including 40% of protestants), was against Brexit, and decried what he called the DUP's "recreational anti-nationalism" which saw Brexit as an opportunity to really antagonise nationalists without serious consequences.

In common with most of the British establishment, the DUP never thought the referendum would pass. They thought they could have their cake and eat it: really annoy the nationalists, and then just whistle in the air and carry on as if nothing had happened, all the while grinning at how they had outsmarted their sworn enemies.

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A Glossary of Brexitology

by Frank Schnittger Wed Sep 11th, 2019 at 09:31:41 AM EST

For some years now I have spent part of the year in Spain to get away from Ireland's long winter climate, enjoy a change of scenery, indulge a childhood passion for living beside the sea, and experience Spain's many other virtues. To my shame, my acquisition of the Spanish language has been slow, to put in mildly. I learned German and French in school, and so lack a grammatical foundation.

But undoubtedly the main reason is sheer laziness. I can get by with relatively little Spanish to conduct everyday affairs, and I have chosen to spend my intellectual energies elsewhere. My excuse is that I am still learning English, which is often literally true.

Writing, as I do, for a multi-lingual community, this is often a source of embarrassment, as many here whose native language is not English, can command it just as well as I do. I console myself by thinking I may have a better grasp of English's many idiomatic idiosyncrasies, and often feel the need to explain or link to explanations of the finer nuances of particular terms.

I include below, for your delectation, a glossary of some English language terms whose precise meaning may not be immediately obvious to non native speakers. Please feel free to use the comments to add your own definitions of terms which may have caused you some puzzlement in the past. Political discourse is often as much about obfuscation as clarification, but as writers and commentators our job is at least partly to eliminate such terminological in-exactitudes where possible.

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Boris and Leo press conference

by Frank Schnittger Mon Sep 9th, 2019 at 04:43:35 PM EST


Please scroll to 44 minutes for beginning of Press conference


Opening remarks

Leo Varadker

  1. We respect democratic and sovereign decision of the UK to leave the EU
  2. Even a no deal Brexit on 31 Oct. is simply the start of the next phase
  3. No deal= severe disruption on these islands - less so on the continent
  4. All the same issues will still have to be resolved before we can even begin to talk about the future economic relationship
  5. All issues which had been resolved in deal negotiated in good faith (note to Mike Pence) with your predecessor will still be on the table.
  6. Negotiating FTAs with both the EU and USA will be a Herculean task - and can only begin with the EU once Withdrawal Agreement ratified.
  7. Cannot replace legal guarantees with promises
  8. Must protect peace and burgeoning all Ireland economy
  9. Haven't received realistic proposals to date
  10. GFA is a good example of how previously intractable issues can be resolved

Boris Johnson

  1. 50% of all cheese & beef consumed in UK produced in Ireland
  2. Must restore Stormont power sharing Executive
  3. Must complete Brexit by 31 st. Oct
  4. Brexit is not a problem of Ireland's making
  5. Will not institute border controls
  6. Can safeguard GFA
  7. Can protect all-Ireland economy
  8. Want to find a deal - no deal very damaging and a failure of statecraft
  9. Can be done by Oct.18th.

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The Prisoner of No. 10

by Frank Schnittger Thu Sep 5th, 2019 at 10:31:05 AM EST

And so the dice are cast...  Having lost every Commons vote of his premiership, Boris finally won one, but not by the required two thirds majority. Labour abstained on his call for a general election on Oct. 15th., denying him the opportunity to take his case to the people at a time of maximum advantage to his cause.

Of course Boris loyalists made great play of the meme that having asked for a general election on a regular basis, "Labour are now running away from the people." Labour's pretext is that they cannot trust Boris to stick to the Oct. 15th. date once he is given the right to call a general election. They claim he could then delay the election until after Brexit day thus making his preferred version of Brexit a fait accomplis.

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A new majority for what?

by Frank Schnittger Wed Sep 4th, 2019 at 10:10:45 AM EST


Theresa May doesn't look too displeased after Boris' defeat.
She had earlier accompanied Philip Hammond to the Commons.

The decision by Boris Johnson to expel the 21 MPs who voted against the Government on the Bill to mandate the government to seek a further A.50 extension may well prove to be the watershed moment in the prolonged Brexit débâcle. It automatically turns a narrow government majority into a large opposition majority and the only question now is whether that opposition can find a common course of action they can actually agree on.

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Boris Prorogues Democracy

by Frank Schnittger Wed Aug 28th, 2019 at 11:36:40 AM EST

Not content to have an unelected Head of State, an unelected upper House of Parliament, an unelected Prime Minister, an oligarch controlled media, and an arcane first past the post single seat constituency electoral system which can yield hugely disproportionate results and renders voting pointless in many "safe" constituencies, Britain's unwritten "constitution" also allows the Prime Minister to "prorogue" parliament to prevent it passing laws not to his liking, at a time of his choosing, for whatever period is his pleasure.

And this is the country which likes to lecture the rest of Europe about lack of democracy and accountability within the EU. British voters have just had the opportunity to elect their MEPs (via a proportional voting system) but cannot elect their Prime Minister, either directly or via their elected members of Parliament. They also have no say in the appointment of his cabinet - unlike the European Commission whose President must be elected by both the Council and parliament, and whose commissioners must be nominated by elected governments and approved by the European Parliament.

Boris has now chosen to prorogue Parliament for an unprecedented period from the 10th. September to the 14th. of October meaning there will in all probability be insufficient time to bring forward the legislative changes the opposition had been planning to prevent a no deal Brexit before the prorogation, and no time to vote no confidence in the Government afterwards, because of the 14 day period Boris can hang on as Prime Minister even after losing a vote of no confidence. The "mother of Parliaments" indeed.

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Boris's Bluff, Blather and Bluster

by Frank Schnittger Mon Aug 26th, 2019 at 11:53:36 AM EST


Do you know who this is?

But the world's media were left speechless by a question put to them by US President Donald Trump at the G7 summit in the French resort town of Biarritz.

"Do you know who this is?" Mr Trump asked as he gestured towards Mr Johnson during a photo opportunity before the two entered a private meeting.

"Does everybody know?"

Introduced like the new boy on his first day in school, Trump touted Boris as his protégé: The right man to get the Brexit job done. Given that Trump has shown far more aptitude for shredding deals than actually negotiating them, that also sounded like a ringing endorsement for no deal.

Continued below the fold ...

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The lesser ego

by Frank Schnittger Fri Aug 16th, 2019 at 01:28:48 PM EST

At last there are some glimmers of hope that the reality of a no-deal Brexit is beginning to dawn on a cross-party majority of MPs and efforts have begun to find a mechanism by which this can be prevented. Since no one trusts Boris Johnson to call an election before October 31st. even if he does lose two votes of confidence, these efforts are focused on finding an acceptable compromise candidate who can be elected a temporary caretaker PM during the two week period between the first no-confidence vote and the deadline for an alternative administration to be formed.

In the absence of an alternative caretaker PM being elected, Boris Johnson would remain as PM until the election is actually held, and in control of the process by which the election date is chosen. His hardline stance on welcoming a no-deal Brexit, and failure to even engage with EU leaders is making it easier for a more cohesive anti-no deal Brexit majority to emerge. However there are huge constitutional and political difficulties to be overcome if this scenario is to become a reality. What has changed is that a sequence of events, hitherto regarded as far fetched, has now taken centre stage in UK political debate.

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Minister for potatoes

by Frank Schnittger Tue Aug 13th, 2019 at 09:37:31 AM EST

Botched departure from EU should not lead to botched exit from UK

Knowing how to make a grand entrance is all very well but, as the Brexit saga reminds us, the ability to make a dignified exit is even more important. There is a lovely French phrase, l'esprit de l'escalier, that signifies the moment at the bottom of the staircase when you think of what you should have said as you were leaving. The Brexiteers have not yet decided what it is they should have said before the decision to depart was made in June 2016. The words of Capt Lawrence Oates, as he left the tent to walk into the blizzard near the bitter end of Robert Falcon Scott's doomed expedition to the South Pole, seem to be as much as they can manage: we are going out now and we may be some time.

But there is more than one exit taking place now, more than one union that is about to be left behind. One certainty in these days of confusion is that whatever Boris Johnson is camping up most ludicrously is the thing that is in deepest trouble. When Johnson, like some tinpot dictator awarding himself decorations and accolades, granted himself the hitherto unheard-of title of minister for the union, there could be no more convincing proof that the union is in deep doo-doo. If you have to have a minister for potatoes, it can only be because there is potato blight. If the state you're in needs a minister to affirm its very existence, you in a pretty bad state.

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Compromise on the backstop would solve nothing now

by Frank Schnittger Thu Aug 8th, 2019 at 11:00:42 AM EST

The Irish Independent, the highest circulation Irish daily newspaper, has published my letter to the editor in full and as the lead letter on its letters page:

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An existential crisis for the EU

by Frank Schnittger Tue Aug 6th, 2019 at 11:36:48 AM EST

To some extent we are all operating in the dark when it comes to predicting how various actors - primarily governments - will act in particular circumstances. We all have to make assumptions to reduce the number of potential variables, but it might be a useful exercise to make those assumptions explicit to see where our foundational expectations differ.

My assumptions about the guiding principles of the key actors look something like this:

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Boris' Brexit Vision

by Frank Schnittger Thu Aug 1st, 2019 at 11:40:05 AM EST


The European Tribune has obtained a copy of Boris Johnson's private diary an extract from which is published below: (Some links have been added for clarity)

Ever since the EU decided to leave the British Empire it has been trying to blame the British for all the problems this is causing, particularly in Ireland, where it will result in a hard customs border right across the middle of Britain's oldest colony. Britain only reluctantly agreed to the partition of Ireland in 1922 to stop the Irish killing each other, and has been striving to reduce the significance of that border ever since; particularly through the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement where the British finally managed to get the Irish to see some sense.

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The death of Sophie Hingst

by Frank Schnittger Sat Jul 27th, 2019 at 05:41:47 PM EST

Derek Scally, Irish Times Berlin Correspondent, has written a sensitive article about a 31 year old German woman and blogger who studied for her Doctorate in Trinity College Dublin, and worked for Intel in Leixlip near Dublin. She died suddenly last week, apparently by her own hand, a few weeks after Der Spiegel published an exposé highlighting her invention of 22 Holocaust victims, many of them supposedly in her own family.

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Finessing the Withdrawal Agreement

by Frank Schnittger Fri Jul 19th, 2019 at 11:16:56 PM EST

The European Tribune has come into possession of a secret memorandum of the Irish Department of External Affairs...

Top Secret
Caution: To be shared with UK Government only after talks with the incoming UK Prime Minister have irretrievably broken down.

Memorandum proposing a process to overcome Withdrawal Agreement impasse.

Background: Para. 5 of the EU/UK agreement to extend the A.50 negotiation period explicitly prohibits the UK from using the extension to seek to renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement. Further negotiations were to focus exclusively on the legally non-binding accompanying political declaration. However, it has become clear during the Conservative Party leadership election that without at least some face saving device the Withdrawal Agreement, in its current form, will not be passed by the UK Parliament. The Irish Government will therefore be faced, at the very least, with a period of "No-deal" Brexit until such time as the current UK Government, dependent as it is on the DUP, is no longer in power.

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A Cold House

by Frank Schnittger Sun Jul 14th, 2019 at 12:25:00 PM EST

Cliff Taylor has written a rather amusing spoof despatch from a British Diplomat in Dublin back to his seniors in Whitehall - no doubt modelled on Sir Kim Darroch despatches from Washington. In general it seems an accurate take on the state of "no deal" Brexit contingency planning in Ireland, but the over-riding impression is one of confusion as to what the Irish are really up to.

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